Use of Armed Private Security Contractors in Iraq Draws Mixed Reviews

For Release

June 16, 2010

While U.S. government officials working in Iraq believe the use of armed private security contractors has been a useful strategy, many worry that the contractors have not always had a positive effect on U.S. foreign policy objectives, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

A survey of staffers from the U.S. military and the U.S. State Department who worked in Iraq during 2003 to 2008 found that a sizeable minority viewed the widely reported abuses of power and the killing of civilians by security contractors as potentially detrimental to the overall American mission in the country.

"While U.S. government workers don't believe these armed private security companies are 'running wild' in Iraq, they do have serious concerns about behavior that is unnecessarily threatening or belligerent," said Molly Dunigan, an author of the study and an associate political scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Most U.S. officials surveyed said they had not witnessed power abuses by contractors, but having even a few officials observe such behavior is troubling, particularly in the context of a continuing stability operation in which poor contractor behavior can very quickly become detrimental to U.S. goals.

"Our research found evidence to support the view that, extrapolating from their experiences with private security contractors, Iraqis may take a negative view of the entire military occupation and coalition forces," Dunigan said. "However, we also found that certain private security firms were able to be flexible in their standard operating procedures and keep a 'low profile' among local civilians."

The largest clients for armed security contractors in Iraq have been the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In addition, news media companies, reconstruction contractors and nongovernmental organizations also hire contractors to fill security needs.

However, there have been numerous reports of private security contractors committing serious and sometimes fatal abuses of power in Iraq, raising questions about the strategy.

RAND researchers surveyed workers from the U.S. military and State Department who had been deployed to Iraq at least once between 2003 and 2008 to find out the extent to which armed private security contractors impose costs on the U.S. military effort, whether the costs are tempered by benefits, and how the use of private security contractors has affected military operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Armed private security contractors or similar forces have been used by the U.S. military in conflicts dating back to the American Revolution, but the extent of their use in the Iraq war has been unprecedented. The number of armed contractors employed in Operation Iraqi Freedom grew from approximately 10,000 in 2003 to 30,000 in 2007 before receding to 10,422 in 2009. At times, the number of all types of contractors—armed and unarmed—has exceeded the number of U.S. military personnel in the country.

After a shooting incident in 2007 at Nisour Square where 17 Iraqis were shot and killed by an armed personal security detail working for Blackwater Worldwide, U.S. government officials improved oversight of contractors. Despite several reasons for skepticism about the impact of these measures, they do appear to have had at least somewhat of a beneficial effect thus far, Dunigan said.

"We discovered much of the problem is that the international law covering these kinds of operations is murky—from 2003 to 2008, these firms were essentially legally immune to prosecution in Iraq," Dunigan said. "The 2009 Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States has given Iraq jurisdiction over these contractors, but they still are thought to, in effect, be legally immune from prosecution under U.S. law."

Based on the findings, Dunigan and her colleagues said there are several things the U.S. could do to improve relations with the military and private security contractors. Since the survey findings indicate that contractors' higher pay relative to military employees has had a negative effect on military morale, the researchers recommend that the military pre-deployment training regimen could be improved to give more information on contractor functions, in an effort to increase the level of understanding and cohesion between contractors and the military in the field.

Given the United States' counterinsurgency goals in Iraq, disconcertingly high numbers of surveyed Department of State personnel believed that contractors do not respect local and international laws and do not display an understanding of and sensitivity to the Iraqi people and their culture, Dunigan said. Further legal regulation via contract law, or a heightened determination on the part of the Department of Justice to utilize existing regulations to hold private security contractors accountable for their actions, might help alleviate the problems associated with contractor recklessness.

Likewise, coordination between contractors and the military in Iraq could be improved by streamlining communication systems between the military and all contractor teams in theater.

The study, "Hired Guns: Views About Armed Contractors in Operation Iraqi Freedom," can be found at

Other authors of the study include Q. Burkhart and Megan Zander-Cotugno of RAND, and Sarah K. Cotton, Michael Webber, Ulrich Petersohn, and Edward O'Connell, formerly of RAND.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. NSRD conducts research and analysis for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the defense agencies, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Intelligence Community, allied foreign governments and foundations.

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